I like writing. It’s always come pretty easy to me, but studying journalism and copywriting during my time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln refined my raw knack into a legitimately marketable skillset. Over the years I’ve picked up some tips, tricks and hacks. Here are five of my favs:
- Stay simple. When writing for a big audience, the simplest word will always be the best. Breaking a message down to its most basic form is hard, but, in the end, only makes your point more accessible. I try to remind myself, too, there’s a fine line between writing simply and writing down to a target. I know I don’t like being spoken to like an idiot, so I imagine most other people don’t, either. In short: People smart. Say few words.
Cut. It. Out.
- Eliminate unnecessary words. We use lots of filler words in everyday speech. In writing, they’re wasted. If there’s one thing I learned in my journalism classes at UNL, it’s the superfluousness of “that.” There are almost zero times the word “that” is truly necessary. When combing through my copy, I also hunt for unneeded adjectives. Shorten “tragic death” to “death” under the assumption all death is tragic. “Every single day” can become “every day” or “daily.”
- Silence is king. I’m sure there are tons of people who can write in crowded coffeeshops or with “Parks and Recreation” running in the background. I am not that guy. I require silence. I can’t even do classical – it’s distracting! If I ever need to pound something out in a less-than-quiet place, my best “trick” is throwing some headphones in and cranking this specific white noise video all the way up. (Not recommended for anyone who don’t want to go deaf.)
- Read everything out loud. This is a basic trick I picked up from “The TV Writer’s Workbook” by Ellen Sandler. Her advice pertained to dialogue for TV, but it’s handy for copywriting, too. Reading things aloud helps uncover verbal hiccups your eyes might skip over. Getting a friend to read your work back to you can be fun, too. Be sure to have a copy nearby and mark spots they stumble.
- If a rule isn’t serving you, BREAK IT. Language is fluid. Grammar is arbitrary. Sure, all the rules make it easier for us to communicate, but they can also get in the way! If a strange spelling or turn of phrase feels right in the moment and serves your message, go for it. As a recovering grammar cop, I have little patience for other grammar cops. Words are beautiful and our capacity to use them is remarkable. If you can justify the breaking of a rule, do it!
PS PS PS
Extra content? How exciting. It’s like a bonus scene at the end of a Marvel movie, except this isn’t a complete and utter waste of a time!
Two great resources for copywriting are “On Writing Well,” an essential book on nonfiction writing by William Zinsser and “How Story Works,” a podcast from Lani Diane Rich covering basic narrative theory. The first is über-cheap and the second is free, so you have no reason to avoid checking them out.